ECTS 1998 - Part One

17 November, 1998

A BIG "Thank you" to my mate GY without whose hospitality these diary events could never have happened. Thanks, man!
2 months since the last entry. Oh dear…

    Londinium. The Big Smoke. The South. England. I have to say, I enjoy travelling down to London - a lot! Perhaps it has something to do with the special occasions that I’m usually travelling for – a buddy’s 21st birthday, a brief visit before the jaunt to Hong Kong or, as was the case in September, the European Computer Trade Show. Mmmm. I have to say, I was planning on attending ECTS before the momentum to get passes from SCEE built up on the Yaroze newsgroups; I registered online for a press pass at the start of the summer as the Associate Editor of the hibernating/extinct N64 website N64 Gazetta. You might feel this was a rather dubious qualification, but I felt I thoroughly deserved a pass – after 2 years of writing lengthy reviews for the Playstation and N64 (both on and off-line), it’s about time I got to attend a trade show!

    So, the day my pass arrived was a distinct cause for celebration. Despite the annoying fact that "N64 Gazetta" had somehow changed to "M64 Gazetta" (could prove handy in Sony quarters), the tell-tale word "PRESS" was there for all and sundry to see. Yessss! Visions of exclusive back-stage access (oo-er) and freebies galore were hard to shake off as I sat coding Mud ‘n Blood. When I finally got on the train from Edinburgh to London, I felt like a fully-fledged games journo. I couldn’t believe that I was going to get to play Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, Turok 2, Body Harvest, Silicon Valley, Outcast, Abe’s Exoduss, Soul Reaver, Spyro, Alien Resurrection and Messiah (let alone all the others) months before their release dates. For someone who’s had to live with the inevitable fact his home country is a backwater for import enthusiasts (a US Goldeneye cost me 70 bloody quid) the chance to see all these titles without jetting off to the US or South-East Asia was, to say the least, tremendously exciting.

    Diary regulars and Net Yaroze members will be familiar with James Rutherford (AKA Mr Frosty), a fellow Edinburgh Uni student (indeed, occasional classmate) and fellow Yarozer. Well, my accommodation in London was being provided by my good friend Gwon Yau Wong (henceforth known as GY), who had kindly agreed to put myself and James up for the duration of the show. As GY lives a few hundred meters from Victoria Station, we were in an ideal position to get the best out of our stay! I met James on the platform at King’s Cross in London the evening before ECTS started – he had flown in that morning and spent the day with Yarozer Rob Ryan visiting London’s retro games shops, primarily the Computer Exchange. We got to GY’s without any trouble, and it was decided that we should all go out for a pizza! As anyone who knows me well will attest, there is nothing that makes me happier than going out for a big juicy pizza with my mates. Actually, sod the mates part – a big juicy pizza’s all I need!

    The big surprise was walking into GY’s local Pizza Hut and bumping into Yaroze members Scott (AKA escotia) and Dave from Glasgow ("Together, they form the entity known as 2cc", said in an Orson Welles voice-over). Co-incidence or what? After a vaguely embarrassing and prolonged double-take I went over and said "Hi", then we moved onto a bigger table to guzzle our dinner. Poor GY was subjected to assorted Yaroze gossip for the rest of the meal, but it was good to hear how the guys were getting on. They were staying at the Holiday Inn Something-Or-Other up the road and were looking forward to a night on the town. Being geeks with an N64, two Playstations and every relevant gaming peripheral known to man back at GY’s flat, we declined to join the mad wee-gee party animals in favour of an evening of Goldeneye, Banjo-Kazooie and Japanese game Bust-A-Move (known as Bust-A-Groove in the West). Wahey! It was quite late when we got to bed, and we had to get up vaguely early the next morning for the first day of ECTS. My first industry trade show – I don’t mind admitting I was really excited!

    The next three days were spent at ECTS, more or less. Rather than list what I did on each day, I’ll relate some of my impressions, memories and experiences of the show in no particular order (other than how I remember them). Well, I can start by mentioning how excited I was on the first day – nightmare scenarios of being rejected at the door ("You’re not really Press, you hairy Scots gimp. Go home.") gradually faded as James, GY and myself boarded the tube for Olympia and realised that everyone else on the platform was headed for the show. How could we tell? Well, some people already had their passes in hand, but it was the disproportionate number of bearded, heavy metal t-shirt wearers that gave it away! Wow – I guess the psychologists who described a "kernel of truth" in every stereotype were right in this case. There were some guys from Blue Moon Studios (one of Lionhead’s "Satellites") as we entered the show floor who epitomised the stereotype I hold of games programmers – long hair, slight weirdo/goth look and pale, malnourished bodies. This was great!

    Entering the show for the first time was bewildering. Even with a map, we had difficulty working out what was where, and which way up everything was. There was just so much to see – should we visit the Nintendo zone, the Sony ‘small-country’ or the numerous publishers’ stands? Our first half hour was spent (somewhat anti-climatically) wandering confused around the ‘peripherals’ section – largely devoted to PC steering-wheels for some reason. But, again, rather than relate what we did and when, I’ll try to provide a summary of my strongest impressions for each major stand (and some of the minor ones) over the 3 days. First up, Nintendo!

    Nintendo. I think that most Brits can’t understand quite how deep my devotion to Nintendo goes. Even though they’ve disappointed many with the N64, understand that I’ve been playing Nintendo games on Nintendo systems since the heady days of the Game & Watch. I was staying up late on school nights with the original Famicom in the mid-to-late eighties (remember I was brought up in the East where it was h-u-g-e!) when I think most people in the UK were more into Spectrums and C64s (or Amigas, if you were rich). In some ways, I think that’s why programming never really started to appeal until Net Yaroze, the programmable console – to me, there’s an important distinction between what we do and PC-style programming. Anyway, if you want me to justify Nintendo’s heritage, just take the NES, SNES, Gameboy and the N64 with their finest games and you’ll have the undisputed championship family of console gaming (look at how the Zelda or Mario series has evolved if you want a case study in game development over several technical generations). Sure, Sony have exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations with their first platform, but it remains to be seen whether they can repeat the impact created so far. Don’t get me wrong – it is my opinion that the Playstation saved the games market from another horrible crash – but sometimes there’s an air of "emperor’s new clothes" around Sony and what they’ve achieved in the video games industry. Any company just had to learn from the failure of the previous CD and 32-bit consoles (3DO, Cdi, Jaguar, CD-32 etc) – it’s the way they’ve marketed the thing that has proved revolutionary; if games are growing up, we have Sony to thank for beginning to drag them out of the murky depths of adolescence (and thus to a wider, older audience).

    The Nintendo stand was dominated by a number of key then-future releases: F-Zero X, the Gameboy Color and, of course, Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I made a beeline for Zelda – after nearly 3 years of waiting for this title I was damned if I wasn’t going to finally play it! To my surprise, there weren’t huge queues – only a few people were milling around the Zelda section. I guess the seasoned journo’s who saw it at E3 had bigger fish to fry, and so I was straight on. First impressions? Well, as I discovered over ECTS, a loud, noisy trade show is no place to play a game. Aside from being unable to hear much of the sound (if it was even turned up), there was a constant awareness that someone else wanted to play (I’m just too nice) and I just felt unable to relax and enjoy the games with so much else to see. Not that worries like that stopped rude adolescents from hogging various machines for hours (I thought this was a trade show)! What first struck me about Zelda was that Link’s control system took a bit of getting used to (no jump button!) and the graphics weren’t quite as fantastic as I’d been led to believe, but then I was playing the dowdy first section of the game – all dull browns, greens and trudging through mud. Bleugh! Despite the nagging of the Nintendo "helpers", I was able to gather a feel for how the game plays in the total hour or so that I played Zelda during the show (and that’s a good 30 minutes more than I played any other game). Also, the video footage showing later sections of the game was amazing, so I still believe it’s possibly worthy of the hype it has been getting!

    The Gameboy Color was my other ECTS must-see, and I have to say I was exceedingly impressed. The stories are true – there is NO screen blur, and the non-backlit colour LCD system works very well. The high point for me was the limited demo version of the original Super Mario scroller game from the NES which looked identical to the original (except, I noticed, the extra lives weren’t in place yet)! If Nintendo are developing this as a proper release title (the mock-up box just said "Mario") then I can’t see how the CGB can fail. The new version of Tetris ran very well, although seeing as the GBC can "colour" old GB games I can’t see much need for owners of the old version of Tetris to upgrade, except for the horrid new music or the solo Vs. mode (pretend to play someone else – what fun)! I was disappointed to learn that the infrared link-up wasn’t actually for playing games, but "exchanging gamepak data" and a link cable IS required. Doh! The colour version of Link’s Awakening was also running (in Japanese) and looks great – the news that it contains an extra dungeon (designed to take advantage of the colour system) is another excellent bonus! I would have played Conker’s Pocket Quest, but it kept crashing. Heh heh heh. All I can say is I will definitely be getting a Gameboy Color this Christmas, and to those of you who think it’s a dinosaur of a system, well, take my word for it that you’d be glad of it if you had to sit on a coach, train or flight for 6 or more hours on a regular basis!

    The rest of the Nintendo stand was admittedly less exciting – F-Zero X was a game I planned on getting in about a week’s time (when I flew out to Hong Kong for the rest of September) so I wasn’t overly-anxious to play it extensively – just enough to make sure it was a valid purchase (it was)! There were also N64s running Glover (ho-hum), Iggy’s Wrecking Balls (oo-er), Mission Impossible and even old stalwarts like Goldeneye and Mario 64! Turok 2 was also on display, but I’ll mention that in my summary of the Acclaim stand. Lucasarts’ Shadows of the Empire follow-up ‘Rogue Squadron’, was available in partially finished form, but I wasn’t impressed after only ten minutes of play. Call me picky, but the clipping was pretty poor and it seemed jerky. Being a Star Wars nut, I really hope they sort it out for the Winter release! The only other notable display was behind "the world’s most annoying booth curtain" (eminently suitable quote from EDGE magazine) seemingly made from velcro, where Rare were showing a video of three upcoming N64 releases – Conker’s Quest, Jet Force Gemini and (wait for it..) Perfect Dark.

    After watching the video about 4 times, I can say that Conker, errr, looks very cute and I sincerely hope Rare do something special with it. I think that sometimes they go over the top with the whole cute thing; what puts me off is that if the game is so obviously aimed at 6 year olds, is the gameplay going to be easy or simplistic? I know that Diddy Kong Racing was ‘cute’ but actually a pretty tough game, but belive me – Conker is 1000 times cuter. Even the SFX sounded like they were coated in sugar - sounds of kids laughing and cute "boing!" noises should be noted as crimes against humanity. Top graphics, although it looks even more like a Mario rip-off than Banjo-Kazooie! It was a different story for the next game - Jet Force Gemini had some great character design and an awesome array of weaponry, blended into another inventive, and beautiful, 3D environment. The music and sound were sharp too, and although you might think the screenshots merit another Rare "cute alert", believe me, the gallons of (green) alien blood and serious carnage shown in the clip indicate that initial impressions of this game are misleading. Dammit, another N64 game I might have to buy!

    Finally, Perfect Dark. Quite possibly the most eagerly-awaited game on the face of the planet – certainly in my case – I think that early indicators are looking good. Despite quite obviously still using a lot of the original Goldeneye code (i.e. weapon names and effects, enemy movement and death animations), at this early stage it is possible to see where Rare are headed. Imagine the towering skyscrapers and opulent corporate environment of Robocop mixed with the futuristic menace and alien architecture of Total Recall and you have an idea of the way the level designs seem to be panning out. Of course, there were only a few stages shown, including the already famous ‘hoverbike’ section and the level where you have to rescue a ‘gray’ lying incapacitated on a floating stretcher. The graphics were already smooth, sharp and showed off a number of effects, from reflections to what seemed to be real-time light-sourcing, as well as the ubiquitous lens flare. What struck me more than anything - probably because I hadn’t read about it anywhere - was the excellent music. A futuristic, pulsing track of the electronica variety played throughout the clip which I hope is actual game music and not something mixed up for the promo reel. I also have to mention that the way the N64 logo morphs into a stylised "Perfect Dark" version of itself (in the opening sequence) is possibly the coolest thing I have seen on console for a long time. I cannot WAIT for this game!

    That other gaming behemoth, Sony, was nestled in a surprisingly tiny corner of the show, hidden under a pile of flyers… Oh, OK, I’m being silly. Sony seemed to have taken over a whole hall of the Olympia, creating a vaguely THX-1128 / Logan’s Run sterile environment in which punters could play games (under hypnosis from swirly lights and ambient tunes) that had been available on import for ages. Slightly harsh judgement, but I found precious little in the Sony section to get me excited about Playstation (only Metal Gear Solid at the Konami stand did that for me). Machines were running Spyro the cute, marketable Dragon and Tekken 3 in abundance, but the most interesting games of the show for me (Abe’s Exodus, Soul Reaver, the Quake 2 conversion) were only allocated one poxy screen each. Bah!

    It was in the Sony section that the Net Yaroze stand was located, manned largely by Sarah Bennett (you’re not really large, Sarah. Ho ho!) and cheer-meister George Bain, although a host of familiar Sony names made appearances while I hung about. The demo machines were playing a selection of the GDUK entries (not mine I noticed, but I guess Sony were looking to sell the machine so I forgive them) and a web link enabled show visitors to register for a Yaroze there and then. Bless James Rutherford for trying to register a NY to Sony Europe HQ themselves – it could have been a telling investigation into SCEE bureaucracy! I myself logged their PC onto the N64 Gazetta web site and left it there in a gesture of "ironic defiance" (read: puerile wit). The "special announcement" we’d all been told about was another price drop (to 230 - less than the PS cost when it first came out, which is amazing to me). Apparently, the drop will encourage more users and create a more vibrant community! Hopefully, that won’t translate as an increase in posts asking "How do I use scanf() on Yaroze?", or whether there are any Quake conversion tools for PS. Hey, we all like to help but I think that for most 13 year old kids the Yaroze is a bit much, don’t you? I spoke to Sarah Bennett about it, and she said that instructions on the price drops come straight from Sony Japan, so it really isn’t their fault, you guys (if she’s telling the truth, that is. I mean, you’d think if Sony Japan were giving instructions for price cuts, they’d implement them over the Atlantic as well). Maybe they’ll waive the membership fee this year too, huh?

    I met a lot of the people who are probably reading this diary at the show, with the informal one o’clock meetings at the NY stand proving quite popular, despite the fact that nobody knew what to do once they got there and saw everyone else standing about. There was a merciful lack of greasy long hair and Motorhead t-shirts among us lot, although that might be an old-skool thing and the modern equivalent is yet to be defined. It was interesting to see everyone and chat with the likes of Charles "Total Soccer guru" Chapman as well as NY members who either have jobs in the industry, are trying to get jobs in the industry, or are still at school (does that cover everyone?). I think we all saw DEnnis with his multimedia presentation, but did you guys also see him trying to photo almost every girl on the show floor? Heh heh. Special mention must also go to Jim Shaughnessy who made it to London for the Monday and Tuesday, whupped James R. and myself in several of the Formula 1 racing competitions, whupped me again at Gravitation and got his picture taken with numerous EIDOS babes. Cheers, Jim, for generally being a fun, friendly bloke (bet I could slaughter him at Goldeneye, though…)

NEXT ENTRY: Acclaim, Konami, Interplay, famous people, freebies, how I wound up in the women’s toilets plus my overall impressions of the show. You lucky people. Anyone going to tell me this has nothing to do with Yaroze?

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